Helena Morrissey’s Report: No excuses – we have to do what she says and do it well

helena morrissey reportMy co-editor Stephen Tall has already published his first thoughts and a follow up post outlining where praise is due, which I agree with pretty much entirely. I’ve now emerged from my trip to London and subsequent burial under a pile of things that need to be stuffed into envelopes to add a few random thoughts of my own.

“A missed opportunity”

Norman Lamb started to draw up procedures for dealing with harassment in 2003. This work was never completed. Morrissey says:

Lamb is unsure why the drafted procedures were not incorporated into the Standing Orders at the time. Shortly afterwards, he took on additional responsibilities and ‘lost touch with where it had got to’. This appears to have been a missed opportunity to take an early clear stance on the issue for Liberal Democrat Parliamentarians. (pg 17)

Kennedy allowed Rennard too much power

The quote from “Witness 39” is telling:

‘Paddy got up at 6am in the morning and wanted to know how many pen nibs there were. Charles let a thousand flowers bloom. A gap opened up which Chris [Rennard] filled.’ (Pg 33)

Morrissey concludes:

This concentration of power was, I believe, both unintended and unique in the Party’s history; it was certainly not envisaged within or created by the Constitution. In the course of the interviews, there was some debate over the degree to which this power was real and the degree to which it was perceived; however I have concluded that the difference was academic in terms of the impact on the organisational culture that prevailed at the time. (pg 33)

For the sake of balance it’s important to point out Witness 47’s point, that the list of target seats at the time was as they would have expected it to be. What Morrissey says is not for sure that power was abused, but that the environment existed where it could be and she concludes that that is unhealthy for any organisation. This is not a personal indictment of Rennard, but, rather a statement that untrammelled power is unhealthy by anyone in any organisation at any time.

The report has been well received

It appears that Helena Morrissey has hit the spot. People are generally satisfied with the conclusions she has drawn. .There is nothing terribly surprising in what she says. Few people believed that Nick, Jo and Danny would have maliciously covered up such serious allegations. Helena Morrissey’s criticism, balanced by a statement that they acted in good faith, is a conclusion that most people can accept. One interesting element on page 46 is where she says:

The Party was distracted by events but I do not believe it sought to cover-up problems. With Clegg less than satisfied with Rennard’s performance as Chief Executive in 2008-9, it could be argued that he had incentive to pursue the allegations further at the time they were first raised, were it not for the understanding (echoed by the Daily Telegraph) that the women did not want their identities exposed. (p46)

An outsider’s view

It’s always interesting to have an outsider’s view of your organisation and her comparison to the party as both a family and a religious community has resonance. She has managed to see the whole picture and make some very sensible recommendations that should be implemented without delay.

Praise for Sal Brinton

Sal Brinton’s work on diversity has come in for criticism in some parts of the party. However, Helena Morrissey is impressed.

Baroness Brinton was asked to do this work and her Report, published two and a half years ago, included many helpful suggestions and observations. Since then, a mentoring scheme has been developed, for example, along with a Leadership Programme for potential Parliamentary candidates from under-represented groups.
 The Report also emphasises ‘Diversity is an issue for everyone, not just candidates’ and recommends ‘Diversity Champions should be mainstream throughout the party and training provided regularly at Federal, State and Regional Conferences to empower them to work with members to encourage under-represented groups to become more active within the party and to become council, assembly and parliamentary candidates’.
These recommendations are excellent and there is evidence that some are underway, but I found that people in the Party were not always aware of the initiatives. The efforts should be much more intensive and a higher priority for the Party. (pg 54)

 There are no excuses not to find good women candidates

When I was Candidates’ Convener in Scotland, I had no compunction about stopping selections if I thought local parties hadn’t done enough to seek out and attract female candidates. This did not always make me popular and I was on the receiving end of some pretty harsh and shouty comments from time to time. I was vindicated, though, when, on re-advertising, one seat attracted a new woman candidate who subsequently became an MSP, although not for that seat.

Helena Morrissey makes it clear that there are no excuses for failure on this:

Real progress will require many concerted efforts at every level of the Party. Local councils, for example, should set themselves the 30% goal – the point at which critical mass is reached. They may claim it is impossible to ‘find good women’ but that excuse is not credible. It may well be that they struggle to attract good women but resolving that is an issue within their own grasp. Women will be more interested in running for positions if they feel they can make a useful impact and the environment will be welcoming. In turn that may encourage more women to vote for the Party. (pg 55)

 On diversity training

One of Helena Morrissey’s 9 recommendations is on diversity training, made available to both men and women, and unconscious bias training. I asked her about this because I felt that the people who need it most might not necessarily put themselves forward for it. I was encouraged by her response that it was not something that she considered to be optional. Now, Nick Clegg actually gets a lot of the issues around diversity and always has done. He needs diversity training a lot less than most people. Why, then, he needlessly dug himself into a hole when Nick Ferrari asked him if he’d go on a diversity course is a mystery. All he needed to say was “Yes, of course I will, and I will expect all the party’s leadership team to lead by example. This is just one of nine practical recommendations that we are committed to implementing.” His defensiveness just handed Ferrari a stick to poke him with and was not necessary.

Implementation should not mean a power grab to the centre

The “byzantine” labyrinth of the organisation chart that Morrissey was given presented her with some challenges. It’s also been ridiculed in some quarters. In truth, of course, it doesn’t work like that (if it ever could) and there is an argument that too much power is concentrated at the centre. We’re a party which aims to balance power leadership, membership and parliamentarians. There is nothing in this report that requires a power grab to the centre, and the diminishing of the power of party members, although the cynic within me expects there to be one. We will need to be quite vigilant about recognising and dealing with that should it occur.

Helena will be back

Next Autumn, the party will be under Helena’s spotlight again. She will come back and judge us on how well we have implemented her recommendations. That is a test that the party cannot afford to fail.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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  • I’m not sure your headline about the comparison between Charles Kennedy and Paddy Ashdown really summarises the point well – it reads a bit like Charles purposely let Chris Rennard draw in power, when as you point out that wasn’t deliberately the case. Personally, I can understand why Charles did that – given Chris Rennard’s position at the time as someone who could be trusted, it would seem reasonable that the day-to-day structural running of the party should be left in charge of the Chief Executive (or whatever he was called at the time) especially after Paddy’s reign! The real concern would be if the power of the CE was (or was perceived to be) greater than that of the Leader, and I think that’s what Helena Morrissey is getting at.

    That said, it’s a powerful report and one which both Labour and the Tories would do well to read before looking at their own glass houses on this issue.

  • Ruth Bright 14th Jun '13 - 8:11pm

    Well done Caron, a vastly better summary of the report than most. Troubling how few people on LDV have been motivated to comment about the findings. Let’s face it, if the report had been about race not gender the party would be finished.

  • Jeff Stephenson 17th Jun '13 - 10:16am

    HMs report is insightful is so far as it demonstrates the lack of professional in the Lib Dem party. How the professionalism is achieved is difficult with the level of volunteers within the party, and wherever there are large levels of volunteers the system can be hijacked by a few malicious people who bend the system to their way.

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